Sunday, 1 April 2018

A look at Creepy Kids in Cinema: Who Can Kill a Child?

Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s 1976 masterpiece Who Can Kill a Child?  begins with a montage of documentary footage depicting the devastating impact of war on children. The endless numbers of innocent young casualties of the Vietnam, Korean, Indo-Pakistani and Nigerian wars, as well as those who perished in concentration camps during the Third Reich. This incredibly grim introduction then cuts to the story of an English couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), who are planning to take a relaxing holiday on the remote, isolated Spanish island of Almanzora. They arrive at their destination, only to find it almost completely deserted. They can only find children who rarely speak and acting in a weird, unsettling manner wherever they go. Tom later stumbles across a giggling girl beating a defenceless old man to death with his own walking stick. The couple discover that the entire island’s young people have been possessed by some unknown force which has transformed them into ruthless homicidal maniacs – they’ve brutally murdered just about the entire adult population. Realising that they will soon be the next victims, Tom and Evelyn try to escape. But they have to make a terrible decision. In order to leave the island, they will eventually have no choice but to kill at least some of the children in self defense. This poses a moral dilemma with the couple. After all, as the film’s title states, “Who can kill a child?”

Who Can Kill a Child? is undoubtedly one of the most original entries in the creepy/evil/possessed kids subgenre. It is based on the 1976 novel The Children's Game by Juan Jose Plans, considered a cult literary classic in Spain. Notably, Stephen King’s short story Children of the Corn, which has some notable similarities to Who Can Kill a Child?, was released the following year. In King’s story, the children of the isolated town ritually murdering all of the adults, as well the evil entity possessing the children and enticing them to kill said adults brings to mind the events of Serrador’s film.

Thanks to the outstanding performances from all involved, as well as particularly stunning cinematography from Jose Luis Alcaine and Waldo de los Rios’ powerfully emotive music score, Who Can Kill a Child? emanates an almost overwhelming atmosphere of dread, tension and malevolence. Not to mention the sheer disturbing power and creepiness of the casual savagery of the children’s acts.

Some of the most frightening films in cinematic history are those where a normal situation in a typically safe, non-threatening environment (such as the couple in Who Can Kill a Child? holidaying on a beautiful sun-drenched Spanish island), suddenly turns very uncanny, alien and dangerous. Add to that the children, who are typically meant to be harmless and innocent, being transformed into evil, sadistic and merciless killers. They’re also highly intelligent and manipulative – the polar opposite of the ‘sweet, naive’ child. In The Exorcist, the security of the family home is shattered by the demonic possession of a pre-teenage girl; in the original Village of the Damned a group of glowing-eyed evil kids who unleash their powers onto the hapless residents of a serene English village; The Bad Seed has a happily married couple’s picket fence life shattered by the seemingly ‘perfect’ angelic looking 8 year old girl being an accomplished liar, thief and murderer. These are films which take ordinary circumstances, where we all feel at ease and then flip them into something unrecognisable, that leaves us confused, disorientated and vulnerable to the ‘unknown’. All these movies beautifully demonstrate the desperation that people would have to go through if unexpectedly something we take for granted becomes our worst nightmare.  

Another common thread found in ‘creepy kids’ films is that often all the craziness starts to happen after a party or some sort of celebration. For example we have the house party in The Exorcist, the birthday party in Bloody Birthday, Damien Thorn’s birthday in The Omen, the school carnival in The Bad Seed, and so on. This also occurs in Who Can Kill a Child?, as before Tom and Evelyn travel to Almanzora, they attend a traditional street carnival held on the mainland. They observe some children hitting a piñata – later on at Almanzora – the possessed kids are seen hanging up the corpse of the old man who’d been beaten to death and pummelling his body with his own walking stick, just like with a piñata, as well as a sickle, in a grotesque parody of the earlier festival scene.

Who Can Kill a Child? is an intelligent entry in the Evil Child subgenre which skilfully presents the universally ‘taboo’ subject of the killing of children.  One of the most interesting and controversial points Who Can Kill a Child? makes is this: Why is it that as a society, we’ve tolerated the deaths of countless young people in wars and famines – they are justified as ‘collateral damage’, but when it comes to to taking the life of an individual child in self defence, most of us would suddenly get a conscience?  

Yet more cut and paste recycled poster art fun - CRUCIBLE OF HORROR and THE NEANDERTHAL MAN

The Australian daybill poster for Viktors Ritelis' brilliant Crucible of Horror (1971) features a hilariously jarring anachronism courtesy of the who-cares-just-slap-up-anything-that-even-looks-0.99999999%-connected-to-the-theme-of-the-title brigade. Not only does the artwork of the two women featured on the poster of actresses who don't appear in the film at all, it's also glaringly obvious that it was poached from something at least from two decades previously. Keith Crocker helped solved this mystery for me - he recalled that the image of the women originally featured on the poster for The Neanderthal Man (1953). The mind boggles...

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

More recycled movie artwork - Larry Cohen's GOD TOLD ME TO & Marijan Vadja's BLOODLUST

Another new discovery in the 'borrowed artwork' stakes...this time the image used in the U.S. newspaper advertisements for Larry Cohen's GOD TOLD ME TO later turned up in the Australian paper ads for the 1977 Werner Pochath-starring Swiss masterpiece BLOODLUST (aka MOSQUITO aka MOSQUITO THE RAPIST).

Sunday, 7 January 2018

An interesting footnote regarding the poster artwork of Bava's masterpiece SHOCK

An interesting observation – the artwork for the original Italian poster of Mario Bava’s SHOCK is almost identical to the cover art (by William Teason) on the 1963 paperback edition of Shirley Jackson’s mystery novel ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’. Grady Hendrix’s excellent book ‘Paperbacks from Hell’ brought this to my attention.

Spot the difference...

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

INNUENDO - an instant classic of Australian cinema

2017, dir: Saara Lamberg

Tuuli (Saara Lamberg), anxious to escape her oppressive, abusive childhood and adolescence, leaves her remote village in Finland and travels to Melbourne, Australia to start a new life. As part of her journey to find herself she wears brightly coloured wigs and nail polish, gets tattooed and acquires an eclectic hipster-approved wardrobe. She volunteers to pose as an art model in a further attempt of self-liberation. However, despite her inner city chic appearance, Tuuli is socially awkward, unworldly and ignorant or unaware of others feelings and needs. Being raised in a God-fearing family and isolated from society in an almost Amish-like environment has stunted her emotional development. Tuuli gets by though, as the hipsters and artists who flock to her see these traits as part of her ‘quirkiness’.  She meets Ben (Brendan Bacon), a rough-edged but laid back artist/hippy/stoner and quickly moves in with him. It isn’t long before a disturbing other side of Tuuli begins to emerge. Underneath Tuuli’s kooky girl persona is very unbalanced woman. Delusions of grandeur, triggers, past traumas and homicidal urges cause her to act out in unexpected, alarming ways. Tuuli reveals bits and pieces of her background to Ben, but still remains an enigma. The obedient, angelic twin sister adored by her parents. The brutal father who tells her ‘she belongs to Satan’. The cold, distant mother who calls her a whore. The key to the mystery lies in Tuuli’s past. But will Ben find it before events spiral out of control?
Innuendo is director/producer/writer/actress Saara Lamberg’s debut feature film.  And what a triumph of moviemaking it is! Lamberg has helmed all four roles seamlessly with gusto, weaving together what is arguably one of the best Australian independent releases in years. The intriguing, immersive and clever story had me captivated from beginning to end, with enough unexpected happenings and twists to constantly keep me on my toes. Lamberg’s performance as Tuuli is hypnotic, captivating, at times jaw-dropping, and quite simply, brilliant. She does a tremendous job at bringing an incredibly complex character to life effectively. Brendan Bacon contrasts beautifully with Lamberg as the rugged, affable Ben who becomes increasingly befuddled as Tuuli begins to lose her grip on reality.  Accomplished cinematography gives Innuendo a polished, occasionally dreamlike, look. For those who’ve lived the ‘shared household’ experience on a limited budget, the set design conveys this in a knowingly realistic manner with lots of cosy clutter, mismatched second-hand furnishings and stacks of unwashed dishes. 
A wonderfully unique dark psychological thriller, Innuendo is a prime example of the high quality output emerging from the uber-talented new wave of young Australian filmmakers. Saara Lamberg is definitely a name to watch out for, both behind and in front of the camera.

Monday, 27 November 2017

PURGATORY ROAD - Mark Savage's must-see new film

Purgatory Road
2017, dir: Mark Savage

Father Vincent (Gary Cairns), an excommunicated Catholic priest, travels in a mobile ‘confessional van’ around rural Mississippi with his brother Michael (Luke Albright), who acts as his assistant. Both men are still scarred from witnessing their father’s suicide in childhood following a home invasion where the family’s life savings were stolen. Vincent, in particular is racked with guilt that he was unable to help his father. Guilt that has manifested into a psychotic hatred towards anyone who steals, no matter how trivial the offence. Anyone who owns up to thieving in Vincent's confessional box is brutally slaughtered and disembowelled – Vincent's rationale is that he is ‘purifying’ these ‘unclean souls’. Though sickened by Vincent's heinous actions, Michael reluctantly sticks by his brother out of family loyalty. The siblings manage to evade the law due to the sheer incompetency of the state police. However their twisted existence is shook up even further when Mary Francis (Trista Robinson), an eccentric young drifter with a taste for bloodshed that rivals Vincent, enters the scene...

One of Australia’s most successful and accomplished independent filmmakers, Mark Savage has consistently proven himself to be a formidable talent in the horror/cult field since the release of his no-budget wonder Marauders at the age of 24. Savage has pushed the bar even further with Purgatory Road, which may well be his best work to date. An intense, relentlessly brutal tale of retribution and indeed murder and mayhem in spades, Purgatory Road is a tour-de-force for the senses that stays with the viewer long after the closing credits rolls. Visually the film is a knockout – scenes are flooded with stunning compositions of  light, shadows and fog and would certainly not look out of place in a classic Eurohorror film (Savage has openly acknowledged that European genre cinema is a major influence on his work). Nightfall invokes a particularly foreboding atmosphere, the dense, rambling backwaters of Mississippi enveloping the unholy deeds of Vincent in its enveloping darkness, occasionally punctuated with glorious shades of crimson. 
The trio of principal actors all deliver the thespian goods exceptionally well. Gary Cairns as Vincent transforms to and from a mild-mannered, pious and seemingly harmless man of the cloth to a ruthless, sadistic monster seamlessly and convincingly. Luke Albright contrasts well with Cairns in his role as the conflicted Michael who’s at a crossroads in deciding whether to stay protecting his brother, or to flee from the mayhem. As the kooky - to put it mildly – Mary Francis, Trista Robinson is hypnotic and scene-stealing without going too over the top.    
A bravura triumph of indie filmmaking from one of its most dedicated, enthusiastic and gifted specialists, Purgatory Road is an uncompromising no holds barred hell ride into the perverse mindscape of a serial killer, fuelled by the series of dark and disturbing events in the narrative. Mark Savage’s masterpiece is a must see for all fans of horror and extreme cinema.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Storie di vita e malavita/The Teenage Prostitution Racket - Carlo Lizzani's overlooked masterpiece

Storie di vita e malavita/The Teenage Prostitution Racket
Director: Carlo Lizzani

Amongst the backdrop of a grey, smoggy and relentlessly ugly Milan – the absolute antithesis of the glitter and glamour most associate with the fashion capital – a weathered looking woman hitchhikes with her 13 year old granddaughter on rubbish strewn industrial roads. But, to the surprise of the male drivers who offer them a lift, the pair are not just after a ride into town. The young girl is being offered to men for sexual services by her own grandmother – and unfortunately there’s no shortage of willing motorists. As they flit from vehicle to vehicle, a group of angry pimps are in hot pursuit, enraged that the duo are intruding on their turf.

Interwoven with this scenario are a series of documentary-like vignettes, each involving a teenage girl and how - often nightmarish – life circumstances led them to become entrapped in the horrific world of underage prostitution.  Innocent, naive Rosina travels from Sardinia to find work in Milan – her improvised mother has five other children to support and wanted to marry the sixteen year old off to a family friend several decades her senior. Rosina meets Salvatore at a disco – he sweeps her off her feet with silver tongued declarations of love and plays the devoutly religious nice boy, when the truth is that he’s a slimy pimp involved in the racket, looking for ‘fresh meat’ to recruit. Salvatore quickly proposes to Rosina and manipulates her into selling her body with poor me tales of being penniless and sickly sugar-coated promises, that the customers won’t hurt her, blah blah blah...After endless abuse from clients, including one who dips bread rolls into dirty toilet water and forces her to eat them, and a number of failed escape attempts, Rosina resigns to her fate and has transformed into a jaded, hardened, coarse streetwalker. As they drive into the night, Salvatore asks her “When are you going to introduce me to that little friend of yours?”

Lonely Gisela desperately wants friends her own age. Her stiflingly strict, God-fearing mother forbids her to even look at boys (“none of them EVER just want to be ‘friends’!!!), and her father is too busy working to pay for the latest ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ consumer goods to notice his daughter. Much to Gisela’s horror, her mother hopes to pair her off with the local priest’s nephew, a painfully dull middle-aged lawyer. So when a schoolfriend invites Gisela to a party her older sister is hosting, she happily goes along. But it’s not the kind of party Gisela is expecting. The older sister is part of the sex ring, and  lecherous pigs take photos of Gisela and other girls in compromising positions, then using the photos to blackmail them into attending more of the ‘parties’. Though initially fearful, Gisela becomes accustomed to the sordid lifestyle, as to her she is receiving the attention and companionship lacking at home. But when Gisela goes to live with her female pimp, she has no idea that she will be just as restricted as when she was living with her parents, as she is now ‘owned’ by the sex gang.   
Precocious, educated, upper-middle class Daniela entered the world of prostitution voluntarily as a sixteen year old to rebel against her parents. Sickened when she hears her father recommending to a friend the underage girls he frequents, and knowing that her mother never even wanted her (“she didn’t want her body to fall apart”), Daniela considers this the ultimate act of revenge. Daniela’s parents’ hypocrisy – keeping up appearances as the ‘perfect bourgeois family unit’ to the outside world, while underneath the genteel veneer her father is a deviant paedophile and mother pathetically shallow and vain – revolts her. Her final ‘Fuck You’ to her parents is when she blackmails them to pay her pimps 10 million lire to ‘free’ her from them.

Pregnant fifteen year old Antonietta flees her miserable, poverty entrenched existence when the glamorous Tina returns from the big city to visit their provincial village. Antonietta, relentlessly harangued by her mother who screams that she has brought shame to the family (if only the mother knew that it was her own HUSBAND who impregnated the poor girl), begs Tina to let her work at her ‘hairdressing salon’. Tina agrees and of course the ‘salon’ turns out to be a front for the racket. But Antonietta is just happy to have escaped her hellish family life. Due to her advanced condition, she is only offered to clients with pregnancy fetishes. After a particularly traumatic birth where she refuses to keep the child, she continues to sell herself, her self-worth completely diminished. After she is arrested for soliciting, she suffers a complete mental breakdown and is institutionalised.

Albertina, a prostitute from a poor Catholic family of ten brothers and sisters (do we sense a pattern here?), is arrested and sent to live in a convent. Albertina was originally a nun herself, but turned to a life on the streets after being raped by a male employee. At the convent she meets Laura, whose background is equally tragic. Laura, again from a destitute family from the South, had hoped to attend university. But her thuggish, wife-beating peasant father mocks her ambitions, declaring that “studying is for boys” and that women’s purpose in life is to become housewives and menial factory workers. Still, she tries to study to become a secretary. But things only go from bad to worse for Laura when her mother, the sole breadwinner, becomes ill and Laura can’t afford to complete her course. The first boy she dates is a creep who breaks her heart by just using her for sex, then dumping her soon after. Laura then signs up to a job agency which turns out to be a front for an escort agency. Scarred and repulsed by all men, she becomes a prostitute as her way of getting back at them – she humiliates and rips off her clients. The love-starved Laura falls for Albertina, and the pair abscond from the convent and go on the game together. Laura has finally found some happiness, but one day Albertina unexpectedly leaves her when she goes to live with a wealthy client. The shattered Laura is completely pushed over the edge when she finds her beloved pet dog – now her only friend - killed by the same disgruntled pimps who are chasing the grandmother and her 13-year-old charge, and the defeated girl takes her own life.

Needless to say, if you’re looking for a titillating sex romp, you’re best looking far FAR away from Carlo Lizzani’s devastating masterpiece, because, despite the lurid English re-titling, The Teenage Prostitution Racket was never intended to be that. Thankfully, the version I viewed is without the jarring softcore and hardcore footage which detracts from the film’s disturbing, powerful realism. In regards to the sex inserts, Lizzani had permitted assistant director Mino Giarda to shoot the softcore sequences for foreign markets, but had no knowledge of the additional hardcore scenes, which he was less that happy with.
Some critics see The Teenage Prostitution Racket as another run-of-the-mill slice of sexploitation with some social commentary thrown in as a pretext (I am assuming most of these critics saw the ‘foreign market’ version). But there is much more to ...Racket – it’s much closer than the bleak grittiness of Christiane F or Lilya-4-Ever than some Schulmadchen Report fluff. Aside from the film’s series of documentary-style reconstructions (each based on co-writer Marisa Rusconi's research on real-life case studies), Lizzani has a few points he wants to make and he sure as hell means to get his messages across in as uncompromising and  as harsh a way as possible. Aside from his obvious disgust at the vile underage prostitution rings, Lizzani takes unsubtle aims at the Catholic church (the parents of the impoverished  girls featured all blindly follow this religion, thus avoiding contraception and worsening their situation by creating more and more mouths to feed; Gisele’s devoutly religious mother alienates her to such an extent that she turns to the world of underage prostitution for acceptance and ‘love’);  the hypocritical bourgeoisie who disguise themselves under a veneer of respectability, yet in some cases are just as depraved as the pimps themselves; and boorish, sexist males in general (just about every man in the film is corrupt, depraved, sleazy or violent – often all four of these). A combination of poverty, lack of education and employment prospects leads many of the girls from the often maligned South of Italy to the more ‘urbane, educated’ North hoping for a better life; yet they find themselves enslaved by human garbage that should be drowned in the infinite gallons of lethally toxic waste dotted around the foot of the country.  

It should be noted that in no way does the movie glamorise the lifestyles of the teenage girls, their pimps and clients. Everything is ruthlessly realistic and ugly – the tears, exhaustion and overwhelming depression of the young women, the abuse they endure from their Neanderthal-like keepers, the repulsive and pathetic clients. While The Teenage Prostitution Racket is certainly a passionate film, it avoids over the top melodrama and Lizzani wisely avoids passing judgement. 
Finally, mention must be given to the location settings of mid-1970’s Milan; like other major Italian cities it was under the stranglehold of terrorist attacks, corruption, high crime and unemployment at the time. This downbeat reality makes for the perfect setting, providing the film’s hard-edged, jaded, grungy look. The Teenage Prostitution Racket presents a ruthlessly, brutally honest treatment of its subject matter. Highly recommended – but be warned, this is grim stuff that is light years away from, say, the ludicrousness of Rino Di Silvestro’s brain-fryer Red Light Girls.